by Mikel Kwaku Osei Holt
Seems just about everybody I know has suffered through 2011. Friends and relatives have lost jobs. Illness or deteriorating health has cut across social, economic and ethnic lines. Most have bit their lips as their jobs have been negatively altered. Dozens of family members have filed for unemployment benefits.
I have not been immune, and have faced tribulations in each of those paradigms, including a major reduction in family income.
As a result, 2011 concludes under a cloud of sorts.
But in an ironic twist of fate (or faith), Christmas 2011 was celebrated by many/most families as a ‘holy-day’ commemoration of the birth of the Christ, versus an overly commercialized ‘holiday’ that focuses on some obese, bearded white guy in a red suit.
Forced by economic and political woes, many of us approached the most important and sacred religious event with an elevated sense of understanding about the solemn occasion, and the underlying mandates that Jesus taught over the next three decades that are requirements for our personal rebirth.
From that perspective, the economic malaise of 2011 has a silver lining as it forced many of us back to the religious side of Christmas. Instead of succumbing to the overly commercialized and bastardized ‘Xmas,’ this year there was an appreciation for whatever blessings we’ve received, and a focus on how His birth signaled personal journeys in which we could step in his footprints.
That realization made the Christmas Eve service at my new church, House of Grace, even more apropos. Not only because the service was the last one to be conducted out of my sister’s home on Grant Blvd (we’re moving to a rental space as we search for a church home), but more so because our pulpit and mission is without the limiting boundaries of nonsensical or unnecessary church traditions and cultural nuances.
At the House of Grace, services are more about dialogue and inclusion, than pastoral dictate and sociocultural traditions. Ours is truly a teaching ministry, and there is ample space allocated for congregational involvement that transcends call and response. Our structure is closer to traditional African family learning scenario than scripted church services that often remind me of military services. With my sister, the Rev. Deborah Thomas, as pastor of the newly organized ministry, and a small but spiritually attuned congregation of family and friends, there is an intimacy and fellowship that is both engaging and uplifting.
Thus, our Christmas service was equally a commemoration of the birth of ‘the’ Christ, but also an opportunity to explore the meaning of his mission as well as how those of us who consider ourselves to be Christians can be more Christ-like.
Each of us was asked to offer a scripture, poem or life revelation. Five of my nephews offered enlightening personal poems; adults provided scriptural analysis, praises and highlights of their personal journeys.
I used my brief time to implore the fellowship to commit the New Year to fulfilling the biblical mandates to aid the poor and the oppressed.
I cited three old and three new testament scriptures on the mandate by the Prophets and Jesus to not only give to, but to uplift and fight for the poor (Psalm 82:3-4 and 1 John 3:17-18 in case you want to look them up.)
I noted that the tribulations endured my most of the congregation was significantly outweighed by what most of the local poor endured in 2011. And for many of them there is little hope for remedy or a brighter future. In Milwaukee, nearly one third of the city’s children will go to bed several days a week with growling stomachs. Over 4,000 MPS students are homeless. Milwaukee is the fourth most impoverished state in the country. A report released last week revealed that the Black male unemployment rate now stands at 55.8%! Single parents head 70% of the city’s Black households, and over 85% of them are impoverished.
That latter statistic, coupled with an alarming percentage of African Americans without a high school diploma, contributes greatly to Milwaukee holding the distinction of hosting the highest infant mortality rate in the United States.
And before your mind turns to the current state political paradigm, a reality check is needed here: these conditions have existed for much of the last decade, even though they have worsened slightly in the last year. They existed when Democrats controlled state government, and under a Democratic mayor, and majority liberal common council and board of supervisors. They exist (and some may say worsened) under President Obama during the two years when he and Democratic controlled the senate and congress. Just like our state government during the same time period, ‘our’ politicians fought among themselves over who would be the chef, and what crumbs would appease what group. In the end, we didn’t get the gravy, but instead we lift with a wordless cookbook and a tub of lard.
I mention those facts not to disparage Democrats, but to note that neither the left nor right apparently cares enough to step out of their invisible boundaries of partisanship for the good of the people, which does not solely mean regular voters and campaign contributors.
Obviously, the poor cannot be found at all on the Republican agenda. And much of their platform has only served to expand the number of poor, and to weaken the middle class. But we would be both naïve and punked to blindly assume things will get significantly different depending in which party has the hammer.
It is with that realization that I concluded my presentation committing myself to do much more to directly benefit the poor for the rest of my lifetime. (The Rev. Thomas asserted her desire to follow suit and encouraged the congregation to draw up similar plans as dictated by biblical mandate. She also revealed that the mission of House of Grace, both the church and its separate non-profit companion, is to prioritize assistance to the poor and the oppressed. To teach them to fish, instead of merely giving them a meal. Providing the poor with tools, and the oppressed with a voice.)
For me, my mission will start with a financial contribution. While 2011 may go down as my worst year financially, there was still a small amount saved for year-end contributions. It was my intent at the beginning of 2011 to focus on my son’s scholarship and contributions to the Barack Obama campaign. My new agenda is to drop Obama for the poor.
Three or four months ago, I would not have felt safe to make that change. Politically, I felt, Black America’s top priority must be to do all we can—financially—to insure the re-election of President Obama.
Within the confines of the political system, he has done more to empower Black America and to challenge the status quo than any president in our history. And I assume a second term would provide much more substance than symbolism. It is in the second term that presidents define themselves, if for no other reason than the fact that they don’t have to worry about political correctness under the cloud of re-election.
Today, I feel almost 100% certain that our president will be re-elected, with our without my few dollars. His ratings have gone up from an embarrassing low. The nation’s economy has improved (albeit minimally), and even unemployment has dropped by a full percentage point, although you would be hard-pressed to connect the Black community to that wagon.
More importantly, the GOP field of challengers is not only pathetic, but the party apparently has come to the realization that its structural ineptitude and lack of alternatives to the present course has turned off the American voter.
The so-called top GOP challenges seem to come out of a Saturday Night Live skit.
Newt Gingrich is not only morally bankrupt, but couldn’t even secure 10,000 signatures to get on the primary ballot in Virginia. Rick Perry is a bubbling idiot who has stumbled and stammered his way through debates and interviews. Herman ‘the player’ McCain was the flavor of the month in November (which is laughable in itself) before scores of mistresses and sexual harassment charges derailed his campaign. (It didn’t help that he didn’t know the difference between Liberia and Libya, or the GPA from the NBA.)
The likely nominee will be Mitt Romney, who conservatives don’t like. His being a Mormon is also the kiss of death.
Moreover, I see Republicans replicating the same self-defeating scenario of 2008, where they beat up on Senator John McCain so much leading up to the primaries that he was damaged goods during the election. Romney is the new McCain.
I’ll still give time and energy to the Obama campaign, but both my cultural foundation and biblical understanding requires that whatever few dollars I have will go to the poor.
Of course, my few coins won’t eradicate poverty. And as yet, I don’t even know where my handful of silver will be directed. But I do know if I can convince a few of you to join me, we can collectively make a difference.
Exactly how is open to discussion and debate.
We can each look to adopt a family, providing them with both financial assistance, but more importantly a blueprint or map to navigate themselves out of their imprisonment. We can join an existing or new organization that seeks mechanisms to empower the poor, particularly the children.
Someone suggested during our service that we put our time and resources into an educational campaign, which may require going door-to-door, school-to-school, and social media to social media to explain to the poor why the roots of their impoverishment and how they can break the shackles, some of which they forged themselves.
As I noted, women head 70% of Black Milwaukee households, which is a major factor in the poverty statistics. Slightly more than 50% of them are high school dropouts. Someone needs to explain to them that education, no matter their current condition, is the passport for them, and their children.
We can also direct our attention to the sperm donors and even the devoted but financially limited fathers about their roles in breaking the chains of poverty, and equally important emphasizing the importance of Black nuclear families, both culturally and religiously.
Naturally, we can point poor families to resources and teach them how to fish as we seek to empower them with culture and spiritual enlightenment.
I also would put on the table the creation of a new political party or Black think tank. Many of the scriptures that guide followers call for us to fight for the fatherless children and the oppressed. The political status quo and agenda of the dominant two parties do offer little to empower the poor and instead seems to focus more on providing Novocain to ease their pain.
Deuteronomy 15:11 (which I referenced in my presentation) declares that the poor will always be among us. That was written 2,000 plus years ago, and has not been challenged or changed. One reason for that, at least in America, is a two party system that serves partisanship and not the people,
More now than ever, we need a vessel that exists solely to empower the poor, redirect resources for solutions instead of appeasement, and galvanizes Black America specifically to step outside of the shadow of slavery.
Obviously, the task before us would be a Herculean undertaking. Maybe it is, but everyone who commits to following the biblical mandates, takes us closer to eradicating plague that envelops our community.
The poor may forever be among us, but they will be fewer in number if we do what we are challenged to do.